No doubt about it, being a freelancer is hard. From serving clients to staying on top of your money game, there’s no shortage of work to do. Sometimes, things may be overlooked or set on the back burner while you tackle pressing business matters. However, there is one major thing that just can’t be ignored — taxes.
As your own chief financial officer you’ll need to be aware of major tax missteps that could ultimately ruin your business. Ideally, you’ll engage the help of an experienced small business accountant who knows the ins and outs of tax strategies for freelance business owners. However, you’ve got to have your ducks in a row to double and triple check their suggestions and advice, too. (See also: What Freelancers and Side Giggers Need to Know About Income Taxes)
These are the top tax mistakes freelancers really need to stop making.
1. Not paying self-employment tax
As a freelancer, you probably have a number of clients that pay you without deducting any taxes. Because you are a contractor, you are responsible for any and all taxes on your income.
Self-employment tax is a term that covers two main taxes: Social Security and Medicare. As an employee of a company, your employer would cover part of this tax. However, lucky you, since you are your own employer, you get to pick up the tab on the entire tax bill.
On the other side of paying all these taxes, you do get some reprieve by deducting a portion of these payments from your gross income, which can reduce the amount of taxes you owe overall.
Just know that it’s very important to pay self-employment taxes on your freelance income. If your client issues you a 1099 form, it’s also transmitted to the IRS. The IRS becomes aware of this income and can demand you to make an accounting for that money if they suspect you owe taxes on it.
2. Not having an accounting system
Making a lot of money as a freelancer can also increase your tax liability. If you don’t have a good system in place to track all of your income and expenses, you could end up paying more (or less) taxes than you’re supposed to.
Charleen Fariselli is a CPA who has worked with small businesses for over 10 years. She says that freelancers who don’t accurately track income and expenses are at a disadvantage. “This affects their taxes because they don’t have a good accounting system and are often losing deductions so they pay more in tax,” she says.
Charleen also adds that a lack of a good accounting system can have an impact on making timely, accurate tax payments: “These freelancers can’t calculate what their taxable income is each quarter for making tax payments, so they over or underpay, if they pay at all.”
The good news is that there are many accounting software options out there to help you organize your books, including QuickBooks, Xero, Wave, and Freshbooks. You can also use a simple Google Sheets document. (See also: 5 Free Accounting Tools for Freelancers)
3. Mixing business with pleasure
One of the worst things a freelancer can do is allow their business expenses and income to spill over into their personal finances. For example, a business owner may use a business credit or debit card to cover a personal expense like purchasing groceries for their family.
The biggest problem with this behavior is how it affects record keeping for tax filing purposes. Joshua Zimmelman of Westwood Tax & Consulting says that bad record keeping can cause confusion for freelancers at tax time. “Too many freelancers miss out on deductions because their finances are not organized,” he says. “Separating your expenses from the start makes filing your tax return so much easier.”
If you need help keeping your personal and business finances separate, you can opt for a business checking account or credit card. You could also use both.
If you do have to use money from your business dealings to cover personal expenses or vice versa, make sure you keep a record of such transfers. A small business CPA can help you categorize (loan, owner draw, paycheck, etc.) the transactions so that you don’t run into problems with record keeping or tax liabilities. (See also: The 5 Biggest Mistakes Freelancers Make)
4. Neglecting retirement savings
The freelance life can be a roller-coaster ride of feast or famine, but it’s still important to keep savings in the equation — especially retirement savings. Saving for retirement is not only critical for your golden years, but can also help you save on taxes.
When you put money away for retirement, it reduces the amount of your income tax withholding. Joanna Zarach is a consultant who helps freelancers plan for retirement. She says, “Solo retirement plans are the most effective way to lower your tax bill now and to build tax-free growth in your investment accounts.”
There are different options to save for retirement. Some smart options include:
Individual 401(k): This type of account is ideal for solopreneurs who want higher contribution limits. You can save with pretax dollars while receiving tax deductions for employer contributions (you are the employer) as well.
SEP IRA: Tax-deductible contributions are made by the employer (in this case, you). Growth is tax-deferred until withdrawal.
ROTH IRA: With this type of retirement account, you save after-tax income that grows tax-free forever.
5. Neglecting health care contributions
Paul Jacobs is a CPA, EA, and officer at Palisades Hudson Financial Group. He says he often sees freelancers, “Forgetting to deduct health insurance premiums. A great tax break that is available to the self-employed is the ability to deduct this expense.”
As a small-business owner, there are tax benefits when you pay insurance premiums for yourself and family members. Premiums for medical, dental and, in some cases, long-term health insurance qualify.
Reporting these premiums on your taxes can reduce your adjusted gross income (AGI) which can make you eligible for certain tax breaks. The only caveat here is that you may now have to itemize deductions in order to take advantage of this deduction come tax time due to the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts of 2017.